VANCOUVER -- It’s one of the ways people prepare for the arrival of a new baby: attending prenatal classes with others who are expecting to learn about labour, delivery and basic care.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, with people being encouraged to distance and stay home, that once-common experience is now turning digital.

St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver is now launching virtual prenatal classes that will be held via video calls, and led by labour and delivery nurses.

Clinical nurse educator Jenna Baumgartner said the classes will initially be offered as one-on-one sessions, but may eventually grow to become group calls.

“As we build in May, we’re going to try and look at facilitating classes with a couple of families near the same due date so that we can link up these couples and they can share questions,” Baumgartner said, and added there are also two nurses who can lead sessions in Cantonese and Mandarin.

“We’re really trying to start with something small, evolve it, translate it, make it a bigger group. We’re kind of also looking for feedback from our patients and seeing what they need, and kind of tailoring it.”

Family practice maternity lead Dr. Donna McLachlan said it’ll be a chance to create a support network with other new parents who might not otherwise meet, given the current circumstances.

“They’re used to having a lot of visitors, and having their family come, and having prenatal fitness classes and all those things that kind of help new moms build a community,” Dr. McLachlan said. “It’ll give them a platform to meet virtually, and then hopefully some of those relationships will continue.”

The hospital’s maternity department is also taking precautions, including restricting who can enter the ward at this time. For now, the ward is off-limits for visitors and extended family. An expectant mother can have a support person accompany them, as long as they are not unwell, and certified doulas are also allowed.

Dr. McLachlan said patients are able to stay in the same room after the baby is born, unless the newborn needs specialized care.

“It’s very peaceful there now. It feels much - weirdly - less chaotic,” Dr. McLachlan said. “It feels very quiet and zen.”

Medical staff in the ward are also wearing personal protective equipment at all times.

St. Paul’s is reassuring people it is safe to come in to the hospital to give birth. An information page created for soon-to-be-parents also said evidence to date indicates pregnant women are at no more risk than non-pregnant women when it comes to the virus, and added there has been a much lower rate of confirmed infections amongst children.